+5 21 votes

Crying Wolf


Crying Wolf by Andy Dappen

The wolfsteria I’m reading about in the newspaper has me scratching my head over the irrational level level of paranoia about a wolf pack potentially establishing itself in the Wenatchee Mountains. I’ve taken multi-day backpacking, canoeing, and climbing trips in Alaska, British Columbia, and Alberta through areas inhabited by wolves, but fear of being attacked by wolves never kept me awake at night. Grizzlysteria – yes, that has definitely (and irrationally) had me paranoid at times. But wolfsteria? It’s hardly been on my radar.

Have I been ignorant or cavalier about the hazards that come with wolves? To better understand this, I recently looked up statistics that might give context to the danger wolves present to people. After seeing the stats, wolves remain low on my worry list.

Total number of people killed in the United States from 2000 to 2013:

  • Fatal wolf attacks: 1 (occurred in Alaska)
  • Fatal cougar attacks: 2 (one in California, one in New Mexico)
  • Fatal black bear attacks: 9
  • Fatal grizzly attacks: 11
  • Fatal snake bites: 13
  • Fatal dog attacks: 283

These are raw numbers and, because there are far more dogs in the U.S. and therefore more people exposed to dogs, you can’t compare apples to apples with these numbers. Nonetheless, the raw data does tell me that over the past 13 years dogs have killed 283 times more people than wolves. It’s not a stretch to believe that death by dog while jogging or biking in the suburbs should be more worrisome than death by wolf while walking in the wilds.

Average number of Yearly Deaths in the United States:

  • Lightning fatalities: 33/year
  • Fatal bee stings: 100/year
  • Gun-related homicides: 11,000/year
  • Automobile fatalities: 32,300/year
  • Obesity: 300,000/year

Again comparing the raw numbers is a case of comparing apples to oranges. Nonetheless, if you look at the one U.S. wolf fatality in 13 years and compare that to the 300,000 Americans dying per year (3,900,000 in 13 years) from attacks brought on by obesity, it’s clear that consistently snuggling up on the couch with a bag of chips is a bigger threat than walking frequently through wolf country.

This is all good news for recreationalists worried about wolf attacks. But what about ranchers who say the re-introduction of wolves will undermine their livelihoods? First, I believe we should compensate ranchers who lose cattle to wolves and that we should cull wolves that are getting habituated to cattle and/or humans. There is a known pattern most wolves follow if they get overly accustomed to people that can lead to more attacks on cattle, dogs, and eventually people. But how severe is the threat along the wolf-cattle interface?

Statistics from states that have re-introduced wolves help us scale the size of the problem. Minnesota has the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states with roughly 3000 wolves. In 2012 the state paid $154,000 for 111 verified cattle claims. In 2011 the state paid out $106,000 for 104 claims. Statewide, in a place that has an estimated 165,000 head of cattle living near wolves, this is a modest payout. Especially when that payout is contrasted against the state’s $500-million industry built around wildlife viewing (wolf-viewing is, of course, part of that mix).



In the fall of 2012, Minnesota’s first season of legalized wolf hunting and trapping was hotly disputed. Two-thirds of Minnesotans polled objected to the hunt. Minnesotans are still arguing whether the 419 wolves killed during that hunt constituted butchery, but it is likely that the hunt increased the wolves' skittishness around people, reduced the habituation of wolves to people, and will lower the coming year’s claims and payouts to ranchers.

All of these statistics make me excited rather than worried about the return of the wolf to Central Washington. Of course, we don’t even know whether all of this tongue wagging is justified--- these wolves may simply be enjoying our local McVenison en route to somewhere else.   

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The information recently listed in the Wenatchee World about precautions and actions to take while hiking in wolf country were good, so they are included them below.

In situations where fears (usually irrational ones) mess with my head (hiking/backpacking in grizzly country, hiking solo at dusk in cougar country, hiking in places where weird humans or dogs are more worrisome than wildlife), I’m a believer in carrying trekking poles and/or pepper spray. Stout trekking poles with the baskets removed are effective defensive weapons against threats smaller than a bear. Bear-formulated pepper spray, meanwhile, is potent stuff. It severely irritates the eyes and mucous membranes of all mammals to the point of causing temporary blindness, wheezing, and/or disorientation. Unlike a gun, spray can be dispensed inaccurately to a general area and still neutralize an attack. Finally, accidental or intentional deaths caused by recreationalists carrying pepper spray are almost non-existent – something that's less true about firearms.

Wolf safety tips (by Michelle McNiel with The Wenatchee World)

Don't:

  • Dispose of food by dumping into the campfire.
  • Leave unwashed cooking utensils around your camp.
  • Leave garbage unsecured.
  • Cook food near your tent or sleeping area.
  • Allow pets to freely roam away from your home or camp.
  • Leave pet food or other food out near your home or camp.
  • Bury garbage, pack it out.

If you encounter an aggressive wolf:

  • Don't run. Act aggressively, stepping toward the wolf and yelling or clapping your hands if it tries to approach.
  • Do not turn your back on an aggressive wolf; continue to stare directly at it. If you are with a companion and more than one wolf is present, place yourselves back to back and slowly move away from the wolves.
  • Retreat slowly while facing the wolf and act aggressively.
  • Climb a tree if possible.
  • Stand your ground if a wolf attacks you and fight with any means possible. Use sticks, rocks, trekking poles or whatever you can find).
  • Use air horns or other noise makers.
  • Use bear spray or firearms if necessary.


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Finally, take a look at this article about be being safe in cougar country.